Adopting the mantle of Great Russian nationalism, President Vladimir Putin’s speech in the Kremlin on March 18 offered a sharp break from his or any other modern Russian public statements. Russia can no longer be perceived as a status-quo power. Rather it has become a radical revisionist and revanchist state. All Western policy must be revised accordingly.
An awful sense of déjà vu was conveyed by Putin’s speech in both substance and form. It would seem overly provocative to suggest comparisons to Adolf Hitler’s speech declaring war against Poland in September 1939, which followed Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria through the Anschluss in 1938, of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia in 1938, and of Lithuanian Klaipeda in 1939. But after Putin’s emotional, belligerent, and self-pitying performance at the Grand Kremlin Palace on Tuesday, I went back to check the details and words accompanying the early Nazi expansion, and it almost appears as if Putin and his aides have studied the Nazi record carefully and decided to repeat its successes.
Twelve similarities stand out between the Putin speech on March 18 and Nazi Germany’s public advocacy in 1938–39.
1. Putin’s fundamental point is that nationality is defined by language and ethnicity and not by statehood or passport. His argument is reminiscent of and appears to have been drawn intellectually from the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder and his 1772 book Treatise on the Origin of Language, which became the base of German linguistic nationalism.
2. Putin’s argument that Crimea and Sevastopol are historically important to Russia, giving Russia a special right to them, was stated this way: “In people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia.” This identical argument was made by Nazi Germany when it claimed many Germanic territories in Europe outside of its 1938 borders. An ominous inference can be drawn from the fact that Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, is central to Russian history, being the cradle of Russian Orthodox Christianity.
3. But history has been unjust: “Unfortunately, what seemed impossible became a reality,” Putin declared. “The USSR fell apart…. It was only when Crimea ended up as part of a different country that Russia realized that it was not simply robbed, it was plundered.” The way Putin phrased it, however, his concern went far beyond Crimea: “Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by border.” This claim also evokes the German sense of devastating loss of German-speaking lands imposed by the Peace Treaty of Versailles of 1919. Note that both events—the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the Treaty of Versailles—were followed two decades later by the real rise of revanchism.
4. In particular, borders were drawn wrongly. “After the revolution, the Bolsheviks…may God judge them—added large sections of the historical South of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine…. Then in 1954, a decision was made to transfer the Crimean Region to Ukraine… This was the personal initiative of the Communist Party head Nikita Khrushchev.” By suggesting that one of Russia’s own leaders sold out the Russian nation, Putin echoed the complaint of treachery by many Germans after the Versailles peace accord.
5. Russia was betrayed by its post-Soviet leaders, just as the Nazis contended that Germany was betrayed by the Weimar Republic: “And what about the Russian state? What about Russia? It humbly accepted the situation.” Putin stopped short of naming former President Boris Yeltsin, who anointed him, but in his accusation one can see the key Nazi stabbing-in-the-back legend (Dolchstosslegende): “However, the people could not reconcile themselves to this outrageous historical injustice.”
6. Just as Hitler lamented how poorly Poland was run in 1939, Putin expressed sympathy for the poor Ukrainians under successive leaders, including those with whom he was once allied: “I understand why Ukrainian people wanted change. They have had enough of the authorities in power during the years of Ukraine’s independence. Presidents, prime ministers, and parliamentarians changed, but their attitude to the country and its people remained the same. They milked the country, fought among themselves for power, assets, and cash flows and did not care much about the ordinary people.”
7. In Putin’s view the new rulers in Ukraine are illegitimate: “However, those who stood behind the latest events in Ukraine had a different agenda: They were preparing yet another government takeover; they wanted to seize power and would stop short of nothing. They resorted to terror, murder, and riots. Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes, and anti-Semites executed this coup.” Ironically, or revealingly, Putin accused the new Ukrainian rulers of following Hitler’s playbook, calling them “these ideological heirs of Bandera, Hitler’s accomplice during World War II.”
8. Against all this injustice, Putin offered suffering ethnic Russians assistance: “Those who opposed the coup [in Ukraine] were immediately threatened with repression. …[T]he residents of Crimea and Sevastopol turned to Russia for help in defending their rights and lives, in preventing the events that were unfolding and are still underway in Kiev, Donetsk, Kharkov, and other Ukrainian cities. Naturally, we could not leave this plea unheeded; we could not abandon Crimea and its residents in distress. This would have been betrayal on our part.” The evident conclusion of this turn of rhetoric is that Moscow reserves for itself the right to intervene to support any Russian speakers anywhere, without regard to international law and international treaties.
9. Putin denied that Russia brought in military force: “Russia’s Armed Forces never entered Crimea; they were there already in line with an international agreement. True, we did enhance our forces there….” Yet, these troops seized the parliament, the airports, and the whole Crimea contrary to its 1997 treaties with Ukraine on friendship and the Sevastopol Naval Base. Denying the direct intervention of Russian troops is also out of the Nazi annexation textbook.
10. Putin invoked the controversial principle of self-determination: “As it declared independence and decided to hold a referendum, the Supreme Council of Crimea referred to the United Nations Charter, which speaks of the right of nations to self-determination.” Self-determination is in the eyes of the beholder, however. Russia’s attitude to Chechnya was rather different. The principle of self-determination does exist in international norms, but it also stands in opposition to the three principles of national integrity, sovereignty, and inviolability of existing borders, which usually predominate.
11. Like Nazi Germany, Putin tried to legitimize Russia’s annexation of Crimea with a rigged “referendum” after Russian troops had taken command, while barring impartial international observers. “A referendum was held in Crimea on March 16 in full compliance with democratic procedures and international norms. More than 82 percent of the electorate took part in the vote. Over 96 percent of them spoke out in favor of reuniting with Russia.” In Austria after Anschluss in 1938, 99.8 percent allegedly voted for it.
12. Finally, Putin comes to the obvious conclusion. Naturally, the fault lies with the West: “Our Western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: Here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle, ‘If you are not with us, you are against us.’” In the same way Hitler blamed the duplicity of the United Kingdom and France for his attack on Poland.
Russia’s military aggression and annexation of Crimea occurred without any legal basis and in violation of at least half a dozen international treaties. Europe is in poor shape militarily, unprepared to stand up against Russia after two decades of disarmament. Once again, the situation is reminiscent of Europe in 1938. Russia’s military might not be in great shape either, but Russia is the only European country that has pursued a serious military reform and rearmament since October 2008, after its August 2008 war in Georgia.
Putin has told us more than he perhaps intended. He has made it clear that he cares little about truth, and even less about international treaties or norms if they are not explicitly to his advantage. The conclusion is inescapable that he is prepared to undertake further unprovoked, unilateral military aggression, returning more territories of Russian-speaking people to the Russian Federation. An old Russian saying goes, “The appetite increases with eating.” It would be strange for Putin to stop after the first course. Western policymakers need to mobilize to stop his aggression.